File Organization

Jan 02 2008

Are you all set with your New Year’s resolutions? Last year, I’m afraid I broke pretty much all of the ones I made, but I did make some progress on one: to be more organized. I’m definitely a convert to the Getting Things Done (GTD) approach by David Allen, though I’m more zealot than master.

David Allen likes to say that acceptable rules of hygiene evolve, and generally speaking, we tolerate less and less skuzziness in our lives as generations pass. For example, people bathe and brush their teeth more often than they did in former decades and centuries. Our tolerance for being dirty and stinky has decreased. He evangelizes for a similar cleanup of personal and professional work habits.

I’m not sure that computer hard drive hygiene has been similarly evolving, in these days where memory is so cheap and plentiful. Maybe we’re a few generations away from really being digitally tidy. But there are great benefits to being organized. You can find things, for instance. Other people can find them too. You can keep track of what’s the most recent version. You can see at a glance what’s missing or where things go. And you can generally escape the feeling (and perception) that your hard disk (and thus, your workplace) is a skuzzy place (different than SCSI!), and generally feel in control of at least part of your environment.

Here are some tips that might help you organize your hard drive—and thus, your work/art.

1. Only use the Documents folder for storage. Avoid storing your files on the desktop or in application folders. If all your personal work is in the Documents folder, you will have a much easier time backing it up, transferring it to a new computer, finding it, and generally living with yourself.

2. In most cases, try to have no more than twenty files in a folder. If you have more than that, additional layers of subfolders might help you. It becomes annoying to try to find items on lists greater than this. Only have more items in a folder if there is a logical sort of sub-organization that goes on within the folder, such as sequentially numbered file names.

3. If you have many projects of a certain type or logical classification, consider bundling them up together in a Projects folder. For example, in my work, I have a folder for Berklee Press projects (books and DVDs), which is part of a higher level of organization called Berklee. I have another folder for my personal compositions. And I have another for my community service activities. There are others, too, but for the sake of this blog, let’s say that there are just those. A snapshot of my hard drive Goose (always name your hard drive), then, looks something like this. Note that I have no files on my desktop. None. Nada. Yesterday, I had about twenty, but that was skuzzy, and it’s cleaned up now, as it gets cleaned up at least once a week (when I am behaving).


4. If you have projects of similar types, consider recurring folder names within them. For example, for book projects, I generally have the same folder types. I’ve found it easiest to organize these projects by the author’s last name. Recent project authors have included Jon Damian, David Franz, and Andrea Stolpe, so here’s what their folder setup looks like:

I currently have 42 active Berklee Press projects! That’s a big, horrible folder: far more than twenty items. I’m always trying to get stuff out of that folder and into my Completed Projects folder. That folder has over 150 subfolders! But since it is seldom accessed, that’s okay.

Note the “Drafts” folders. That’s one step away from the trash, and in fact, once a book is published and I’ve created a CD archive of all the files, I delete all the Drafts folders. (All drafts are still stored on CD.) But it’s helpful to me to have Drafts folders associated with each project.

5. Name your files carefully. When it’s logical, include a sequential number in your file, and a concise descriptor of what it is. Mix case.

For example:

The Chapter folders have numbered chapter files. (Some books, such as Andrea Stolpe’s Popular Lyric Writing, don’t really require separate files for each chapter. It depends on how many embedded graphics there are.)

For Dave Franz’s new edition of Producing in the Home Studio with Pro Tools, the chapter files look something like this (simplified, for the sake of this post):

Graphics files get numbered sequentially by chapter and by image within the chapter. For example, here, chapter 2’s first graphic is called New Session. The second graphic in chapter 2 is called New Track Dialog. Each chapter gets its own folder.

For notation, I used to think that there should be separate folders for Finale files and for graphical export files, but I ultimately found that too cumbersome, in practice. Now, I just have all those files in a Graphics folder, even among other graphical types such as screen shots and diagrams. So, in Jon Damian’s new book The Chord Factory, a typical graphics folder looks something like this, mixing Finale files (.mus), exported notation (.tif), and charts he made in Clarisworks (.cwk):

Keeping them sequential keeps them organized.

If you live like this, your life gets easier. I can’t imagine how many tens of thousands of files are on my computer. Lack of strict organization schemes such as this would make my work grind to a standstill!

If this is an alien idea to you, I recommend that you mend your evil ways, for your own sanity. Simplify! Organization will set you free. For all new work, try to come up with a simple, usable system for organizing your files. In spare moments, try to make sense of any disorganized areas you might have.

Make it a New Year’s resolution to get ALL data files off your desktop at least once a week. The first time you try this might be a painful procedure, but if you’ve got a logical hierarchical setup, it becomes easy to keep it all neat and organized.

Good luck, and happy new year!